Monthly Archives: August 2018

The Wheel and the Whip

I’ve been meaning to write a proper review of Norm Friesen’s The Textbook and the LectureThis post isn’t it, but I can direct you to Lavinia Marin’s informative review at the LSE Review of Books. What I want to do here is simply to riff off the book’s (for me) central insight, namely, that the traditional “media” of education, such as textbooks and lectures, go back a long, long way and are closely tied to the history of literacy in general. What we mean by reading and writing, and especially academic reading and writing, has been conditioned by millennia of shared classroom experiences in which information has been presented in a particular way. Scholarly writing doesn’t simply transcribe these experiences, it is informed by them. The classroom experience, likewise, is shaped by the role we grant to writing in education.

It’s the depth of this history, its “longue durée”, that Friesen is trying to get us to appreciate, which is why I’ve been encouraging anyone who is thinking seriously about the future of academia to read his book.  These days, there’s a strong tendency to jettison “traditional” elements of our pedagogy in favor of fancy new technologies. I was recently told of a student reading “app” that would essentially overlay a social media experience on the experience of reading an assigned text. While it wouldn’t add much more than a set of study questions and group discussion, it would completely destroy the solitary experience of reading. A few years ago the chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication “retired” the essay.

As Friesen reminds us, however, the denigration of traditional forms, like lecturing, isn’t actually a new thing. It can be found in John Dewey’s “progressive” ideal of education. We’ve grown used to dismissing lecturing as uselessly passive or even harmfully pacifying. Friesen is trying to tell us that making sense of a 45 minute lecture (without PowerPoint!) is an important, trainable skill and that going through this training leaves our minds (and in fact our brains) in better shape than we would be if we were constantly “activated” by classroom gadgetry.

The insight that brought it all together for me was realizing that lecturing is about as old as writing, and both are about as old the wheel. When people reject a medium of instruction that has been with us for 6000 years undergoing continuous small improvements, because some new technology (like the Internet) has made it “obsolete”, I always want to remind them that some inventions have yet to be transcended. It is true that the automobile made the buggy whip largely obsolete and it is now being produced for a very specialized niche market. But the same is not true of the wheel. It is has simply been improved, century after century, rolling, rolling, rolling ever more efficiently, and in ever more creative applications, but always leveraging the same mechanical force in the same way, round and round.

Likewise, written and spoken “prose”, the plain expression of what we believe to be true, has a long history of gradual development. I hope I never tire of celebrating the advance of the paragraph as a form of expression and I firmly believe that its force is leveraged both in our academic writing and our academic speaking. The focus and coherence of paragraphs are virtues that run through both our essays and our lectures, not to mention our treatises and our textbooks. We have learned, through ongoing experimentation, how to describe facts along with our reasons to believe in them. This form of communication is essentially “academic” and the foundation of critical thinking as we know it. The “modern fact” and the modern paragraph owe a great deal to each other, and we owe a great deal to both of them.

So that’s why I urge scholars to think seriously about the changes they are proposing to our media of instruction. Some of them have been around for a long time because they are part of the essence of what we do. They have served us well for thousands of years and, if we let them, they will continue to serve us well for thousands more. That’s because they were never just a gadget we invented; they emerged from the long moment of human history, the encounter between the world and our bodies, our history and the human brain. Not everything old-fashioned is out of date. Before removing a “traditional” element from your pedagogy because “it’s 2018”, therefore, ask yourself whether it’s more like the buggy whip or more like the wheel. I believe that lecturing and prose writing, for example, are the wheels of knowledge circulation. Their moment will not soon pass. Or will pass at our very definite peril.

20 x 20

Here’s a thought experiment I’m using to focus my own writing pedagogy. Suppose you were given twenty 20-minute moments of a students’ full attention. That’s six hours and forty minutes altogether. Suppose you could decide where, when and how that time was used. You can do it all in one day or spread it out over eight weeks (or even more). The student could practice a particular skill, or simply sit and listen to you instruct them. You could give the student feedback or ask the student questions. The content of this little course is entirely up to you. But outside of the 20 x 20 minute sessions you are not to expect anything at all from the student other than they are leading the life of an average college student, with an average course load and average ambitions. Your job is to improve their writing as a much as possible. Again, during each of those 20-minute moments, you have their full attention.

The finitude of this problem appeals to me. I recently ran a Twitter poll which confirmed my hunch that most of us would agree that a substantial portion of the time should be spent  by the student, alone, practicing. But surely some instruction would help. So the first question is how much time we’d spend meeting with the student to give instructions and feedback. Actually, that’s two questions: how much instruction? How much feedback? Then there’s the question of what instructions to give them and what kind of feedback. But don’t forget your finitude here: there are enough resources for twenty things to happen. There are twenty moments of twenty minutes each. Some for instruction, some for writing, some for feedback.

I think it would be very interesting to compare the variety of writing philosophies according to how they would manage the resources in this problem. In fact, I’m sure I would have answered this question differently at different times over the last ten years or so. Before I got into the business of writing instruction I would probably have dismissed the exercise as absurd, or trivial, or in some other way not worthy of a university education. But the more I try to help writers improve, the more I think we cannot get around this, at least as a thought experiment. If the goal is to make students into better writers, what would be the optimal use we could make of these conditions?

I leave it open for now, but I’ll post my own answer later this week.

Teaching or Training

“In our opinion, we must train college-level writers
rather than merely instruct them.” (Ronald Kellogg & Bascom Raulerson)

As writing instructors, we spend a lot of time thinking and talking about genre conventions. We imagine that our students are struggling to understand what is expected of them when they do their assignments. We imagine, I suppose, that they are perfectly capable of communicating with their friends and family but are unsure of how to present their ideas in an “academic” setting. Sometimes we approach the problem in terms of a “cultural divide”, either imagining that there is some distinct barrier between youth culture and the culture of the university, or, more literally, by supposing that “elite Western education” constitutes some special obstacle for foreign students or marginalized groups. In all cases, we imagine that the solution is to teach them what the genre requires, which is to say, to give them knowledge they are presumably lacking.

I have long been skeptical of this approach. Even to imagine that the students know how to communicate personally with each other is, I think, a bit optimistic. I don’t remember being particularly confident as a young man communicating my hopes and desires to other people my age. Certainly, I don’t remember doing very much of this in writing. (It should be said that we didn’t have social media back then and it wasn’t until I graduated from university that I moved away and began communicating by letters and email. I think it would be a stretch to think of these communications as compositions. But it’s not my impression that communication on social media today displays any particular “writtenness”. It seems very wedded to oral conventions.) I suspect that the idea that the difficulty lies mainly in the genre, not in the use of written language itself, has been misleading us for some time. (The historical roots of this will be the subject of another post.)

Let us think about this by way of two of my favorite analogies. (I am aware that these aren’t everyone’s favorites.) Suppose we were not teaching our students to write but how to box or dance. A boxing match certainly has rules and conventions that are worth knowing, just as the tango is a particular art with teachable elements. But does it make sense to think of competence here mainly as a kind of knowledge? I would argue that what is much more important is the physical training that boxers and dancers subject themselves to. This both improves their general fitness and their specific ability to make the moves that are required of them. Good boxers and good dancers are not demonstrating an understanding of rules and conventions but the product of years and years of experience, many hours of deliberate practice.

In fact, a boxing coach or dance instructor who suspects that the aspirant isn’t practicing between classes is not going to make up for this by presenting them with ever more theory. Under some conditions, the instructor will simply terminate the relationship, considering it to be a waste of everyone’s time. I think we need to apply a similar approach to writing. Whatever we do teach our students about writing, we must insist that they train it if they are to have any hope of actually doing it well. The ability to write confident prose is grounded in deep dispositions that must be strengthened through discipline. We cannot assume that our students just need to be given instructions that their hands can then easily carry out on the page.

My suspicion is that we are neglecting 90% of the problem by not being very explicit about the need to practice. When we see bad student writing, we should not assume that they misunderstood the genre (and certainly not the assignment), we should suspect that they haven’t been practicing. Politely explaining what was expected of them doesn’t do them any favors. Our first line of feedback should not be to correct their mistakes but to make them try again. Indeed, the very first thing we should do is have them read their work out loud to each other. The things they are not able to do well will here be as apparent to them as their inability to dance or fight would be on the floor or in the ring. We can then assign them the simple things to do that, through repeated practice, will make them better writers.

The Fundamentals of the Academy are Strong

I’m aware of the dangers of making such a statement. On September 15, 2008, while campaigning for president, John McCain declared that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong.” A few hours later, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, triggering a global financial meltdown. Time magazine has accordingly called it the fourth most “unfortunate political one-liner” ever uttered, bested only by “read my lips”, “I did not have sexual relations”, and “I am not a crook.” Indeed, Time reminds us that McCain’s bad timing repeated, almost verbatim, Herbert Hoover’s words of assurance four days before the stock market crash of 1929: “The fundamental business of the country, that is, production and distribution of commodities, is on a sound and prosperous basis.” So when I now declare the production and distribution of knowledge in the university to be on a sound critical basis, it is not without trepidation. Perhaps tomorrow another scandal will make it appear that the whole edifice of higher education is a giant Ponzi scheme and extortion racket!

I was spurred to thinking about this by two opinion pieces published on the same day. Both declared academia to be “fundamentally broken”, albeit in two very different ways. In the Guardian, citing troubling mental health statistics, Julian Kirchherr argued that “the current PhD system is fundamentally broken”, while a blog post at Scientific American by the 500 Women Scientists collective argued that “academia is fundamentally broken and incapable of dealing with harassment”. The issues that they are addressing are of course both real and serious, and I’m sure it is intended as hyperbole, but before we even imagine tearing the whole academy down and starting over I think we should reflect on our foundations a little more carefully. I don’t think the situation is as a bad as we think.

I want to begin by defending both McCain and Hoover’s “unfortunately” timed pronouncements. (Let me make it absolutely clear, however, that I’m not defending Bush, Clinton, or Nixon!) What they were saying was in a certain sense true enough: in 1929 and 2008 the problem was not the fundamental productive capacity of the nation, but the circulation of money, the availability of credit. There was no shortage of supply or demand, just a lack of money to connect the two. The problem, as both McCain and Hoover were trying to explain, was financial not economic. The solution, accordingly, would not be a fundamental reorganization of the economy but a recentering, if you will, of the economy around its fundamental strengths. Indeed, some would argue that this has more or less been accomplished in both cases. (Others would rightly emphasize that a great deal remains to be done to avoid future crises.) I am aware that this sort of sophistry will not convince everyone, nor prevent them from making jokes. But it does, I want to insist, have some truth to it and it applies in an important way to the question of the academy’s allegedly fundemantal “brokenness”.

Just as the crises of 1929 and 2008 were not economic but financial, the problems that beset the academy today are not epistemic but social, not academic but political, and in that sense the institution is not (at least not yet) fundamentally broken. (I grant that social pressures can in extreme cases undermine intellectual foundations.) What is needed, I want to argue, is return of the social machinery of academia to the fundamental problem of knowledge, we need to recenter our scholarship on the production and distribution of truth, rather than trying to leverage our intellectual output in the service of political and, yes, economic goals — things like “justice” and “growth”, often brought together under the banner of “impact”.

In the same way that the economy was being distorted by “synthetic” financial products in 2008, so too is scholarship being distorted by the wrong sorts of incentives and “moral hazards”. They have been widely discussed, and I won’t go into them here, I want to look at our strengths. I want to show that we can do away with the administrative superstructure that caused this mess and rebuild on foundations that are, in fact, not broken at all.

In what sense, then are our academic “fundamentals” strong? In what sense can we declare that the “fundamental business” of the Academy rests on a “sound and prosperous basis”? First, consider the raw availability of intelligence and curiosity in the population. Millions of young people the world over attend university and many of them are eager to continue on to pursue graduate studies. (This, to answer The 500 Women Scientists, includes increasing numbers of women, who have already gained parity in some fields.) There is some variability in the trends, but, in general, academic pursuits are not being eschewed by the most intelligent and curious among us. It has even been suggested that the general intelligence of the population is naturally increasing. We’re getting smarter and smarter with every generation.

Second, the store of existing knowledge is both well-maintained and easily accessible. Our libraries do an excellent job of maintaining collections of books and articles and we have better and better means of searching them. Moreover, the system of email and blogs and social media makes it increasingly easy for researchers to contact each other directly and informally exchange ideas and challenge each other’s viewpoints. Never before have we had such promising conditions for the exchange of knowledge, and the situation is only likely to improve. If something it known, it is increasingly likely to be available to others to know as well. And if a falsehood is believed, it is increasingly likely to be corrected by someone who knows better.

Fortunately, there’s good reason to believe that rhetoric of a “fundamental brokenness” is not being used in a literal way. Asked for solutions to the sexual harassment problem in academia, Kathryn Clancy, who served on the committee that produced the NASEM report, has taken a somewhat hard line. “Burn it all down,” she said to the Washington Post, “and let’s start over.”  That’s certainly the line one would take on a system that is “fundamentally broken”, but I was glad to see that she softened this view when she talked to ScienceNews, noting that radical change “would be harmful to the people [she’s] trying to help” since “dismantling the system immediately, given the way sexism and racism still operate, means we wouldn’t have a clear lane for success.” Addressing the mental health crisis among PhD students, Kerchherr also ends up taking a more reformist view. He proposes to tweak the incentive structures and “fix the broken PhD machine”. Here, again, one imagines that radical changes wouldn’t bring much comfort to a PhD students who is already suffering under the strain of intellectual life.

Note that the idea of fixing something, rather than burning it down and starting over, already belies the language of “fundamental brokenness”. Indeed, if I’m as right as I hope I am, the system is not fundamentally broken. The incentives are just a little misaligned. What is needed is merely to shift the system (gently) back onto its true foundations. Exactly how to do that will have to be the subject of another post and the result of much discussion, but, whatever solutions we come up with, we should presume that the foundations are strong, not that everything is going to fall apart any day now.

Also, and perhaps most importantly, we should keep encouraging curious and intelligent people to pursue academic careers and assure them that they have the power to reject some of the more perverse incentives they may be offered. As I said many years ago, if you’ve devoted yourself to a life of the mind, you have an obligation not to engage in soul-destroying labor or moral degradation. Despite occassional outward appearances, it is my firm conviction that you are certainly not actually obligated to do so.

Something to Ask Your Students to Do

Students taking your course should become both more knowledgeable and more articulate about its content. You, of course, are already more knowledgeable and articulate than most on the subject, which is presumably how you got the teaching gig. That means that if there’s something in the readings for the course that you think is interesting then it’s probably worth the students’ time to learn it too. They may not find it as interesting as you do, and they may not be able to converse about it as intelligently as you can, but they should be able to sense its relevance in the context of your teaching.

With this in mind, find a single page in the course literature you have already covered that contains a fact or notion that interests you. It’s important to emphasize to the students that there’s something on this page that you find very interesting. It’s also important to remind them that this should not be the first time they’re reading the page; it was part of their class preparation. Finally, make sure they know the full agenda for the class, i.e., what will happen for the next 45 minutes.

Here’s the exercise:

  1. Give the students five minutes to read the page and identify the most interesting thing (to them) on it.
  2. Have them write down a simple, declarative sentence that states the interesting fact or defines the interesting notion.
  3. Give them five minutes to think about what they might say if they were given three minutes in front of the class to present it.
  4. Give them 14 minutes to write a paragraph that presents the fact or notion in the most interesting way they can.
  5. Select two or three students at random to come down in front of the class and make those three-minute presentations but do not let them bring their paragraph or the source with them.
  6. In the time that remains (of a 45-minute lecture), have them edit and proofread their paragraphs.
  7. Have them hand in their work.

Read all the paragraphs before the next class. Begin the class by asking two or three students to make a three-minute presentation. Choose them on the basis of the work they submitted — perhaps according to whether they found the same thing that you did interesting. Also, choose two or three paragraphs to look at with the whole class. These should be selected because they offer an occasion for you to show them something about writing, because they display either notable strengths or notable weaknesses.

The important thing to get across is that students in your class should be able to do these things well. You aren’t asking them to do anything more than demonstrate knowledge and articulateness about the subject matter of the course. If they find the exercise extremely difficult or even impossible to carry out they should be told that they need to practice more, study harder. But make sure they understand that competence here is a relative matter. It’s fine that it takes an effort on their part. It’s also fine that they aren’t entirely satisfied with the result — they weren’t given ideal conditions to work under, after all. But what you are asking them to do is not at all absurd. That’s the important thing to emphasize.

Finally, remind them that what you’ve just made them do they could choose to do on their own at any time. Any page of the assigned readings will do. They can pick one at random, or they can ask a classmate to pick one for them. If necessary, they can hold the talk in front a mirror, but it’s obviously a great idea to do this in pairs or in a study group. It can (and really should) be done regularly. It should be as naturally a part of preparing for class as reading a book. Instead of the comments you give in class, they can give each other some unfiltered feedback.